In MN 137 we have a difficult translation problem. There a term that is unique in this sense, sattapada. Elsewhere we have what is presumably a homonym meaning “seven steps”. But both elements satta and pada are highly variable in meaning. Despite the wealth of semantic possibility, stretched still further by the rather baroque array of translations of the term in other languages, it is hard to find a meaning that seems very fitting.
The commentary takes satta in the sense of “sentient beings”, and pada apparently in the sense of “path” (vaṭṭavivaṭṭanissitānaṃ sattānaṃ padā). Various translators of the Pali have:
- Chalmers: tracks for creatures
- Horner: modes for creatures
- Thanissaro: states to which beings are attached (reading satta as = śakta)
- Uppalavanna: seven steps
- Bodhi and Analayo: positions of beings
We can dismiss Thanissaro’s reading, as the text clearly speaks both of attachment and letting go, so this reading, obscure in any case, is implausible. Uppalavanna’s choice of seven steps is tempting, as the phrase could easily refer to seven statments or steps in the teaching. However, the text itself contains no such group of seven. This leaves the remainder, all of which more or less agree with the commentary.
But this reading too is not persuasive. The text speaks of different kinds of feelings and one’s attachment to or letting go of them. There is no mention of sentient beings. So sure, it’s vague enough that it doesn’t definitively contradict the text, but neither does it fit very well.
The difficulty was evidently felt in ancient times, for we find an unusually diverse range of readings outside the Pali. These are described in Analayo’s Comparative Study of the Majjhima Nikaya, vol. 2 p. 783 note 132, on which I rely for the following. Unfortunately I cannot paste the whole note in, as the text is not Unicode and generates gibberish. I will spare you the many detailed references and just give the gist.
- Some Chinese texts have a reading “knives”, which Analayo suggests may be a mistake for something like the Pali sattha (or else a copyists mistake in Chinese).
- Some texts have something like the Pali satthar, i.e. “teacher”.
- One text evidently represents śāntapadāni.
Now, none of this inspires great confidence, and the most likely situation is that at an early date, the use of a common word with a variety of meanings and near-homonyms led to confusion throughout the tradition. Nevertheless, have a look at three of the possible Sanskritic terms here:
- śastra = knife
- śāstṛ = teacher
- śānta = peace
Notice anything? Of the three Sanskrit sibilants, they all begin with the same one, ś. Maybe this is just a coincidence. But there’s another Sanskrit word that begins with ś, namely śāta. This is cognate with the Pali sāta, which means “pleasure”. In Sanskrit, however, the sense “pleasure” is less important, and it has a stronger sense of “sharp”. It doesn’t take much to see this in the first of our Chinese examples, “knife”.
Sāta fits much better with our context, as the whole passage is literally about what gives rise to feelings. The problem is, of course, that sāta refers only to pleasant feelings, whereas the text discusses neutral and painful feelings too. Perhaps, after all, this is on the wrong track. Or perhaps it has a more oblique sense here: “states beginning with pleasure”, or “bases for pleasure, etc.”
I don’t know much about the process of dialectical transformation in ancient Indic, but I wonder whether it might have begun with sāta + a secondary suffix, perhaps a possessive -iya, so sātiya in the sense of “pertaining to pleasure”. Then it contracts to sātya. The consonants are simplified to sātta. Then the long ā is shortened as usual in Pali before a doubled consonant: satta.